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After a great opening credits sequence (thank you Saul Bass), we meet Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), a successful ad executive who appears to be more than comfortable with his busy lifestyle. A case of bad timing gets him mistaken for a spy, George Kaplan to be exact, by a group of people up to no good. Matters only get worse when he's framed for the murder of a United Nations diplomat. On the lam, he enters into the company of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who has a special interest in him. What follows is an exciting series of events that can only be described as Hitchcock's very own Planes, Trains, and National Monuments.
Much has been made of "Why Hitchcock is great." Entire books have about been written about his cinematic style. I'm certainly not going to add anything to the mix. Let's just say that all of things that made him a revered name in film are here: great shots, marvelous set-pieces, thrilling action sequences, and cheeky innuendo.
North by Northwest also goes right down the Hitchcock checklist of elements that he probably should have seen an analyst about. We not only get a "wrong man" scenario - we get it twice! First, Thornhill is mistaken for a spy, then a murderer. Policemen play a menacing, though unvillainous, role. The blonde is duplicitous but sympathetic. Thornhill is forced to become a voyeur near the climax. However, even though it's easy to pick out these familiar features, they never make things predictable, and they all fit naturally into the plot.
Even Hitchcock at the top of his form is only capable of making a great Hitchcock film. For it to be a classic, support must come from his actors, the script, and the score. As you might expect from my already glowing adoration of the movie, North by Northwest is strong in all three of these parts.
There are lead actors, that is, performers who have a bigger part than the others, and then there are lead actors, who seem to command all of the others to dramatic excellence. Grant ably fills the latter definition. His work is probably his career-best, full of sharp line delivery and a glint of fun in his eye. He's utterly charming, full of that Golden Age appeal rarely seen anymore. Following Grant's example are great turns from the coolly sexy Saint, James Mason as the lead bad guy, Martin Landau as the henchman, and Leo G. Carroll as a curt government agent known as The Professor.
The script by Ernest Lehman, with some ideas developed with Hitchcock, has a great narrative structure, which, typically, I wouldn't even comment on, but a number of Hollywood productions these days have forgotten that vital portion of a screenplay. The dialouge is filled with wit and intelligence. There's no cheesy catchphrases here, just excellent conversations and even better pick-up lines. Yes, there are a few holes in the plot and a few things are a little too convenient, but the incredibly skillful execution of everything papers over the problems.
Bernard Herrman provides another great orchestral score to heighten the mood. The man was as brilliant with musical notes as Hitchcock was with his camera lens, and pairing the two has always seemed like a match made in cinematic heaven. Here, his work is as good as, if not better than, his usual standard of excellence. If you have the DVD, there's an option to watch the movie with just Herrman's score, and I suggest checking it out at least once.
Often imitated (see the cornfield scene in Joy Ride), but never matched in its sheer grandeur, suspense, and sense of playfullness, North by Northwest remains one of Hitchcock's best films, if not the best. It's one of those rare movies where everything seems to work just the right way. See it, if you haven't already. If you have seen it, do so again. Either way, it'll be a wild cinematic adventure.